Friday, December 01, 2006

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 1

Rand's theory of morality is the best refuted of her theories. Since there's been much wrangling about her theory in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to reexamine Rand's arguments and point out what's wrong with them. Rand actually presents several arguments, each devoted to a specific problem. These can be summarized as follows:

(1) "Objective" and "rational" argument for why man needs a code of values based on reason;
(2) Argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which all goals are evaluated;
(3) Argument for how happiness is achieved.

The term "argument" is here used rather loosely. Rand offers no clear-cut, formal argument for the last two positions, merely a few vague and rather puzzling hints. Let's start with the first one for why man needs a code of values based on reason. It could be summarized as follows:

(P1) Man is a living organism that faces the fundamental alternative of life and death
(P2) Life requires a specific course of action to sustain itself
(P3) Because of the need for unit-economy, the course of action required to sustain man's life must be reduced to a series of intelligible principles
(P4) Reason is the only means of figuring out the series of principles required to sustains man's life
(C) Man needs a code of values based on reason

Now I have given Rand a little help here. She does not explicitly mention the last two premises, but they are clearly things she presupposes and explicitly endorsed in other places. I will leave the logical analysis of this argument to others. I simply note that, while the first two premises are largely true (indeed, the second is a truism), the last two are dubious. A much more plausible theory states that ethical theories depend, at least in part, on tacit knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated in explicit principles. (See Hayek or M. Polanyi.) Philosophers who reduce morality to a handful of consciously articulated principles end up with ethical maxims that are too broad and leave way too much wiggle room for casuistry.

The fourth premises presents particularly serious difficulties, because it's not clear what "reason" is. If we define it analytically (i.e., as that which is required to find out the principles needed to sustain life), then the statement assumes the very point at issue. If we define it as a process whereby, through observation and "induction," one creates premises and then uses logic to deduce conclusions from those premises, then the proposition is empirically false: that view of knowledge acquisition, originally formulated by Aristotle and the scholastics, is wrong. Cognitive scientists have found no evidence that knowledge works that way, and a great deal of evidence that it works in other ways (i.e., largely through a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error testing).

Note how the first two premises, which are the most plausible and easy to defend, are the only ones Rand explicitly enunciates. This is a common trick of rationalizing philosophers: The rationalizer parades the obvious, as if the argument depends only on that, when, in reality, it also depends on dubious presuppositions that are never acknowledged or explicitly stated.

I will examine the other arguments in later posts.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

***P3) Because of the need for unit-economy, the course of action required to sustain man's life must be reduced to a series of intelligible principles***


When you say unit economy what you are saying is concept formation.

I wouldn't word it as saying Objectivism says concept formation is for reducing things to intelligible principles. It seems that you are using this phraseology to set up a straw man.

Concept formation is for allowing the mind to grasp knowledge past that of the perceptual level by integrating likeness and measurement omission.

It is not the course of action specifically that is conceptualized. It is man that is conceptualized and it is the nature of reality that is conceptualized that sets the prnciples determining what values are good and bad fo rman.

Daniel Barnes said...

PM:
>It is not the course of action specifically that is conceptualized.

Hi PM,

By the above, you now seem to be arguing, perhaps unwittingly, that there exist other forms of man's knowledge that are not concepts ie: plans, principles, methods and other 'courses' for human action.

This is contrary to Rand, who says that human knowledge is conceptual, and that must include plans, principles, methods, courses of action, as obviously they are all represented by words.

So Greg is quite clearly correct, and not setting up a strawman. I think you will find it is your interpretation of Rand that is off if you think about it carefully.

Anonymous said...

***This is contrary to Rand, who says that human knowledge is conceptual, and that must include plans, principles, methods, courses of action, as obviously they are all represented by words.***

What I am saying is that 1.) I've never heard Objectivist ethics argued for in the "need for unit economy" way as Greg uses here.

2.) The implications of what Greg is saying is that there are so many types of moral situations that could arise Rand could not have possible thought about them all and that conceptualizations are too broad for ethics. Yes plans, principles, methods, and courses of action assume concepts. Yet to argue Rands ethics like this is to not understand how she induced her ideas on ethics.

The conceptualization that matters is that of man (not broad ideas). Once this conceptualization is grasped then ANY situation that arises the litmus test for the ethics of that situation is man. That which negates "man" is the unethical and that which supports "man" is the ethical.

gregnyquist said...

PM: "When you say unit economy what you are saying is concept formation."

Not quite. I'm explicitly stating Rand's rationale for why people need their morality in the form of a code, that is, in a series of intelligible principles. In short, I'm trying to present the Randian argument in the strongest possible light. Rand was right about the necessity of unit-economy, so that by noting the importance of this for her argument, I'm strengthening her position, not misstating it, as you later suggest.

PM: "I wouldn't word it as saying Objectivism says concept formation is for reducing things to intelligible principles."

But I haven't worded it in that way. You have. And in so doing, you've completely missed the point. The issue is about why people need a moral code. Now a moral code is a collection of moral principles. That's, more or less, what it amounts to. Rand wasn't saying man needed an intuitive moral sense, or a moral tradition, or tablets from Mount Sinai. No, she believes men need a consciously articulated conceptual set of principles that could be used to guide people through life.

Your other objections are utterly irrelevant to the point at issue. Neither Rand's position nor my criticism of it has anything to do with what type of conceptualization matters. It has to do with conceptualization in general: whether men need a series of principles, abstract ideas, moral concepts (call them what you will) in order to guide themselves through life. Rand's view on this issue is actually one of her more plausible positions. I would even go so far as to say that there is an element of truth in it. Conceptualized moral principles, as fabricated through some sort of philosophical system, can and perhaps occasionally do influence people's behavior--though they are not as determinative as Rand seems to think.

In short, my criticism (on this issue) has nothing do with how Rand proposes to conceptualize her ethics. It really has nothing to do with ethics per se. It's not a moral criticism; it's not even an epistemological criticism. It's a psychological criticism -- a criticism that stems over the sources of ethical behavior: whether conceptualized moral codes (irrespective of how they are conceptualized!) really can or do have much influence over human behavior.

Anonymous said...

Greg, you stated...

***But I haven't worded it in that way. You have. And in so doing, you've completely missed the point. The issue is about why people need a moral code. ***

And you are absolutely right. I did misunderstand your point. Consequently I did take a closer look at your post and have some comments/questions.



In your article, in critique of the conclusion of the deduction, you said...


***"Philosophers who reduce morality to a handful of consciously articulated principles end up with ethical maxims that are too broad and leave way too much wiggle room for casuistry."***

I'd like you to furnish me with examples related to Objectivism where this is the case. You are stating the claim but you have not shored it up with any substance.
Now I'm speculating on exactly what you mean here because you didn't provide examples. But let's take the ethical principle of honesty as an example. It may be right in most situations and will work towards my long term happiness. However honesty in another situation may work against my long term well being. Context is important. So I'm wondering if what you mean by "wiggle room" is that if one can object and come to a different conclusion while still maintaining said "ethical principle" and still not contradict other ethical principles of said philosophy?


*** If we define it as a process whereby, through observation and "induction," one creates premises and then uses logic to deduce conclusions from those premises, then the proposition is empirically false: that view of knowledge acquisition, originally formulated by Aristotle and the scholastics, is wrong. Cognitive scientists have found no evidence that knowledge works that way, and a great deal of evidence that it works in other ways (i.e., largely through a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error testing).***



I think you are splitting hairs with your premise number four critique. Rand defines reason as the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by mans senses. So yes this does involve induction. But it involves induction along with integration and differentiation. Also I might point out this this position is congruous with the scientific method. The scientific method is the best method we have for determining the nature of existence. Induction is the backbone of this method and certainly deduction is used. Now despite all the fruits of this method of gaining knowledge about reality you say that the cognitive scientist have found NO EVIDENCE that knowledge works this way! (Ironically this is being asserted ON THE INTERNET!) You say that instead they say it's really a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error. Now let's examine this further. Analogical reasoning; If I'm going to draw an analogy to help me to understand a situation, then certainly this assumes induction and reasoning of some previous event. Trial and error also assume induction and reasoning. If one were looking for the answer to a problem, he wouldn't just randomly pick the variables that he's plugging in. He'd pick the most likely ones and he would determine the most likely ones by induction and reasoning and then "trail and error" the likely candidates until he finds the answer. What I'm saying in short is not that trail and error and analogical reasoning are wrong to do. I'm saying they are just two of the methods that assume the scientific method of induction etc and that your objection here is trivial.

Also how would one apply this trial and error method to ethics? Would I have to trial and error murder, rape, and stealing before I could know it was wrong?

***Note how the first two premises, which are the most plausible and easy to defend, are the only ones Rand explicitly enunciates. This is a common trick of rationalizing philosophers: ***

Rand defines reason explicitly so I don't think this charge can be levied against her here. Premise three is one way of wording what she makes explicit in ITO, so I'm not sure how you can levy that charge here as either. Or unless because it's not mentioned (and it may well be I would have to go through it again) in AVoS?

Also I'm interested in you elaborating on tacit knowledge and how that can be applied to ethical situations. Also if possible, contrast that example with your view of the Objectivist system. Thanks in advance.

gregnyquist said...

PM said:

" I think you are splitting hairs with your premise number four critique. Rand defines reason as the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses. So yes this does involve induction. But it involves induction along with integration and differentiation. Also I might point out this this position is congruous with the scientific method. The scientific method is the best method we have for determining the nature of existence. Induction is the backbone of this method and certainly deduction is used."

We are both discussing on such a broad level of abstraction that we are in danger of failing to get each others point. My description of how people really think is of course rather vague and is not fit for minute analysis. The real point I'm really trying to drive at is that such thinking is too complex and involves too many subconscious factors to be adequately schematized. And indeed, that whole issue of schematization is the most important part of my critique of Rand's model of thinking.

In this context, it is critical to grasp precisely the intent of Rand's theory, that is, what she needs to establish to make her philosophical project plausible. Reason and objectivity are important to Rand, not simply because she's interested (or claims she's interested) in truth, but because she wants show that there is method all intelligent people can use to discover truth. To state this in as clear terms as possible, Rand wants us to believe that if everyone were to follow "reason," as she defines it, we'd all come to the same conclusions, particularly on the important issues on life, including moral issues. In other words, just as all intelligent, sensible people can use reason to determine that 2+2=4, so they can also use reason to determine that Rand's morality is the correct one.

Now this belief of Rand's presupposes certain ideas about human knowledge. It presupposes that disagreements about morality are primarily caused by irrationality. It presupposes that thinking is primarily conscious and that, at least ideally, it follows an articulated method. And it also presupposes that questions about the validity of moral conclusions can be determined by consciously examining the reasoning process that went into forming those conclusions.

I regard the first of these presuppositions as, at best, only partially true and the other two as grossly implausible.

"Also I'm interested in you elaborating on tacit knowledge and how that can be applied to ethical situations."

I'm glad you asked, that's precisely where I'm heading with this. Let me begin by emphasizing the complexity of some of the problems we face in life. They involve making estimations about the future, estimations about the probable behavior of other people, and educated guesses about factors that we not very familiar with. Worse, we sometimes have to solve these difficult problems very quickly. You're a soldier on a battlefield, a stockbroker on an exchange floor, a father dealing with an acute family crisis and you're forced to make a quick yet momentous decision. What are you to do? You can't use the method of rational conscious deliberation advocated by the Aristotlean tradition; you must rely on "intuition." Fortunately, nature has developed within us a brain that is surprisingly good at making what are essentially non-rational intuitive judgments. Since these judgments take place almost entirely below the threshold of consciousness, the process by which they come about can't be examined rationally. Indeed, we can only make educated guesses about how they are made at all, and then in only the most general and clearly inadequate terms. It would appear that these judgments are based on a large body of tacit knowledge that is absorbed, often unconsciously, through experience. Hence the remarkable ability of human beings to do things without being able to explain how they do them.

"I'm wondering if what you mean by 'wiggle room' is that if one can object and come to a different conclusion while still maintaining said 'ethical principle' and still not contradict other ethical principles of said philosophy?"

Yes, it's quite possible. Indeed, that's one of the most difficult problems in morality (it's not just a problem with Rand's ethics, but with all ethical systems). To use Rand's language to describe the problem, it's all about determining "context" -- in other words, when a moral rule is applicable and when it isn't. Most people with any moral sense at all, including Rand, recognize that moral rules about honesty, killing people, taking their stuff, holding them against their will, etc. etc. don't apply in all instances. Now the question is: how do you distinguish between instances when a moral rule applies and when it doesn't? If, as I strongly suspect, there are some instances that can only be distinguished intuitively, then any attempt to apply consciously articulated reason to these instances is bound to be sophistical. And, in keeping this, I have found from my own experience that those individuals who are most emphatic about justifying themselves morally are precisely those who exhibit poor moral judgment, as if they are incapable of intuitively grasping subtle moral distinctions. (Of course, they may also be simply ignoring the subtle moral distinctions so they can do whatever they please.)

Anonymous said...

What one man may think to do instintively in a particular situation may not be what another man instinctively does in said situation. One may be right or they may both end up being wrong.

I think you are using the concept of intuition as if it is the rational driving force instead of it being the end result of ones chosen values.(eg) The intuition of a street thug who has been raised primarily by other thugs has a set of morals that will cause him to instinctively run from the police. Contrast this to an honest working man who doesn't fear the police but instead feels a sense of comfort when they are around and would never resist arrest and would cooperate completely.

Both of these men have different intuitions because they both have accepted a different rational philosophy. I contend that if one forms their philosophy rationality then the automatic decisions will usually follow suit.

Let me draw another parallel. I don't know if you play any musical instruments, but when you are playing the guitar, if you are to sound good, you can't be thinking to yourself ,"Ok now I'm gunna play the note of B and then of G flat". It all has to come instinctively for it to flow, or as I like to say, learn it until it's second nature. This of coarse presupposes a long and arduous rational undertaking of physical training and theory. If one learns wrong, his instinct will follow and likewise he will not sound good.

Anonymous said...

correction..

I stated..

Both of these men have different intuitions because they both have accepted a different rational philosophy.


Omit the word rational from that paragraph. I didn't intend to say that the thugs philosophy was rational.

gregnyquist said...

PM said: "I think you are using the concept of intuition as if it is the rational driving force instead of it being the end result of ones chosen values."

Not in the least. I'm using it as merely one form of knowledge (among others). To describe it as a "driving force" is problematic, because that implies motivation. I'm not talking about motivation, but knowledge -- i.e., means rather than ends. Now knowledge can be divided into deliberate and intuitive knowledge. What I contend is that, while simple moral problems may be solvable through deliberate knowledge, complex moral problems require intuitive knowledge in order to be dealt with. That, in any case, is what the evidence of cognitive science suggests.

PM: "I contend that if one forms his philosophy rationally then the automatic decisions will usually follow suit."

This assumes that intuition is (or can be) little more than one's rationalize philosophy automatized or, as Rand would put it, "programmed." Now this is quite clearly a question about matters of fact, and such questions should, if possible, be solved by scientifically examining the relevant evidence. So my question to you is: do you have any scientific evidence to support your assertion? Everything I've learned from cognitive science would lead me to conclude that your view is grossly exaggerated. While it may be possible that an individual's rational philosophy may influence one's tacit, intuitive knowledge, the idea that "automatic decisions" can "follow suit" from one's rational philosophy strikes me as implausible. I am aware of no evidence that supports it; yet there does exist evidence that would stand witness against it.

Anonymous said...

Greg,

I have supported my position with real life situations. Two of them in which a persons particular intuition is a product of their values and actions.


How do you explain that one persons intuition in a particular situation may be different than another's in the same situation? Is it that you contend that it's the same for everyone? I doubt that because that's a very tall claim. I provided a clear example with the street thug. His intuition is to run from the police. Is it just a mere coincidence that this is the case?

There may be some situations where a person has intuition that was programed subconsciously by environment. But this is very subjective and can lead to two people in the same situation having different intuitions and therefore cannot be a reliable guide to ethics. In other words, it does not follow that intuition leads to what's right and moral. I think you have a heavy burden of proof if you hold that it does.

You want scientific proof of my position but do we really need it? I think it's self evident and I have given examples of this. But anyways , I'd love to read the peer reviewed journals that you claim support you position. And besides, I find it strange that you want scientific proof. The scientific method involves induction. You all of a sudden accept induction as a valid means of gaining knowledge about reality?

Angry_Beaver said...

pm: "Omit the word rational from that paragraph. I didn't intend to say that the thugs philosophy was rational."

How can you say it isn't? Every person is different, and every person has drastically different life circumstances. What is rational for one person could be completely irrational for another. It depends on the goal an individual has in mind.

While what is considered "reason" may be concrete and objectively definable, what is rational--what is reasonable--is subjective. That is to say, it depends on the goal of the subject. It depends on observation. It depends on the inputs for deductions, which may themselves be statements of observation, or conclusions from deduction or induction.

gregnyquist said...

PM: "I have supported my position with real life situations. Two of them in which a persons particular intuition is a product of their values and actions."

Your "real life situation" don't constitued evidence; they are fictional examples framed to make your point. They don't even address the issue at stake, which is: where do people's moral intuitions come from. That is question of fact, and questions of facts are best answered by attending to the relevant evidence. A question like this would require research: getting out in the field and studying how people make moral decisions and how they form their moral ideals. Such studies clearly indicate that there is more to moral decision making and moral problem solving than simply following some articulated and rationalized moral code. The actual decisions people tend to make are not always consistent with the actual moral judgments they make. These judgments appear to stem from a more sophisticated, inarticuable moral intuition. Now the question we are debating is how this moral intuition is developed, and given how difficult a question that is, I feel far more comfortable letting scientists figure this one out. In any case, I would warn anyone from reaching a conclusion on what they want to believe.

PM: "It does not follow that intuition leads to what's right and moral. I think you have a heavy burden of proof if you hold that it does."

You're right. And I don't hold that it does. My position is much more subtle than that. I contend that there are some situations (not necessarily all situations) that are too complex to be determined on the basis of articuable moral principles, in which, therefore, we have no other choice but to follow our tacit, intuitive knowledge. Exercising good moral judgment requires more than just following principles; it requires distinguishing between when a given moral principle applies and when it doesn't, and this ability to distinguish context, I strongly suspect, is based on tacit knowledge, on our intuition. Thus it is possible for two people to each adhere to the same moral principles and yet end up having different moral judgments on a specific issue, precisely because they differ on whether those principles apply in a given context.

PM: "You want scientific proof of my position but do we really need it? I think it's self evident and I have given examples of this."

Let me make it clear so there is no misunderstanding. I don't want scientific evidence for you entire position, only for your claim that a person's moral judgment can potentially derive entirely (or almost entirely) from a rationally formed philosophy. Now that is a statement about a matter of fact, and a rather controversial one at that. I'm not aware of any reputable psychologist, cognitive scientist, neurologist, evolutionary psychologist or other scientist working in a related field who would regard that as a plausible view. Since such scientists are more likely to know more about this issue than you or I, I believe irrational to accept your view on your say-so (and Rand's) alone.

If you are right on this issue, you should have evidence -- and fairly convincing evidence, or at least evidence more convincing than the evidence on the other side -- supporting your position. I prefer to base my views, when possible, on the best evidence presently available. So if you do have evidence, rather than merely fictional examples, bearing on this precise question about the source of tacit, intuitive knowledge, please produce it. I'd be very curious to see it.

Primemover said...

Greg,

My position is that "intuition" (what I call a sudden guess) is nothing more than that. This explains why it is right sometimes and wrong at other times. A person does not "know" that their "intuition" (sudden guess) was right until hind site when rational judgement can be used to examine the situation.


If I'm a thug and I think that the police are bad, my sudden guess in a situation will be to run when I see them coming or maybe to avoid them inconspicuously if possible.

If I am an honest person my sudden guess or action (intuition) will be to NOT run or hide but instead maybe to offer help to the officer if he needs it.


***I don't want scientific evidence for you entire position, only for your claim that a person's moral judgment can potentially derive entirely (or almost entirely) from a rationally formed philosophy.***

When one makes a choice ethics is involved period. Choices (rather sudden of not), as I have given examples of, can flow from ones rational principles or lack there of.

A person has a philosophy (a view on life) rather they say they do or not and rather they try to form a rational one of not.

You say my examples are fictional. What exactly is fictional about a thug having the intuition to run from the police? Are you saying that a thug has never had such an intuition and is therefore a fictional situation? What exactly is fictional about that example?


***So if you do have evidence, rather than merely fictional examples, bearing on this precise question about the source of tacit, intuitive knowledge, please produce it. I'd be very curious to see it. ***


I reject that it is "knowledge" to begin with. One does not "know" that their sudden unthought of action was right or wrong until hind site.


And besides, what have you shown me besides unsupported assertions to support your side? I have given you examples that support my side so at least I have given you that which amounts to a hell of a lot more than you have offered besides your unsupported claims.

And where is it that you think this "initiative moral knowledge" comes from?

gregnyquist said...

I think we've beaten this topic to death, so this will be my last post.

PM: "And besides, what have you shown me besides unsupported assertions to support your side?"

Really? I wrote: "I'm not aware of any reputable psychologist, cognitive scientist, neurologist, evolutionary psychologist or other scientist working in a related field who would regard [your position] as a plausible view." Now I suspect that you know little if anything about experimental psychology, cognitive science, behavioral neurology or evolutionary psychology; but if you had at least some familiarity with these disciplines, you would not say that my assertions are unsupported.

If you a sincere interest in getting to the empirical truth of these matters, I would recommend the following books, which present the result of empirically responsible study of issues that bear on the debate at hand. The best single introduction to cognitive science is Morton Hunt's "The Universe Within." The best empirically responsible introduction to the subject intuition is Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," which provides evidence that intuition really is, despite PM's denials to the contrary, knowledge (see the chapter on the "Statue that didn't look right"). The best introduction to evolutionary psychology is Stephen Pinkers "Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature." On the question of how people develop their capacity to make moral decisions, see "Moral Minds" by Marc Hauser.

Primemover said...

Greg,

My position is not that humans do not have the thousands and thousands of years of evolution and natural selection that give us (pardon the phrase) "basic instincts." What I am saying is that as far as ethics (choices) is concerned what ones values are plays a large part.

I gave the example of the street thug and I was hoping to get to the meat of what your position on that is and why his instincts are what they are verses everyone else's, but instead you chose to ramble off the names of books. Rambling off the names of books does not make your case nor does it add to the credibility of your case.

Anonymous said...

A rock, to exists as a rock requies a specific course of action. A rock must not fall into lava; or allow itself to be dissolve over time in acid. It cannot allow wind or rain to erode itself.

If a rock cannot avoid these things it will cease to exist. Its matter will remain, rearranged by the blind forces of nature, but the rock will cease to exist.

A rock faces a fundemental alternative between existence and non-existence. A rock therefore has values.

----
So what is wrong with this argument? Why should life be the only thing to face an alternative betweene existence and non-existence?

Jay said...

Because a rock can't "face" anything. A person "faces" something in the sense that events impact his self-esteem and future choices, not to mention his prospects for achieving any goals he may have. A rock is just a rock. It doesn't have feelings or aspirations or values or goals.

I can't believe I just spent a minute and a half of my life formulating an argument for why rocks don't face alternatives between existence and non-existence.

I enjoy coming to this site too much! ;)

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I can't believe I just spent a minute and a half of my life formulating an argument for why rocks don't face alternatives between existence and non-existence.

Ah, the wonderful world of philosophy...;-)